Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Roundway Hill: late afternoon, December

We went to get our Christmas tree this afternoon from the farm we usually buy from at Seend village. Alas and alack. They were not selling trees. No explanation on the big hand-painted sign other than "No Trees".

So we tootled back into Devizes and stopped off at the garden centre near the Black Horse pub at the top of the flight of locks. Their tree prices were outrageous so we resisted but the view from their car park is one of the best around, looking towards Roundway Hill.

We eventually got a tree from a fallenoffthebackofalorry outfit selling trees in the car park of the Bell by the Green pub. M recognised the young guy selling - she had taught him at primary school. "Oh I remember him... he was a pain in the ****..."

The tree looks OK. Only cost £15. Hope the needles stay on until Christmas Day.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

More bread

More bread, originally uploaded by mike(toons).

I worked hard yesterday to get five loaves baked - a pain de campagne and four small Borodinsky sourdough rye. I'm still ridiculously proud of my newly-learned baking. It's great fun, very satisfying and I'm literally putting bread on the table.

The four Borodinskys were baked in my new four-in-a-line baking tins bought from Dinghams in Salisbury.

Winter skyline

Winter skyline, originally uploaded by mike(toons).

The light yesterday morning was very changeable. One moment bathed in pale golden winter sun, the next shrouded with mist. This is the view directly south from my house. Not 'straight out of the tin' but with some help applied in Adobe Lightroom and an intrusive electricity cable carefully removed in Photoshop. Honesty is my middle name.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Worst car I ever bought

Worst car I ever bought, originally uploaded by mike(toons).

Back in 1976 Fiat cars were built to last...oooh... anything up to two years. Which is about how long this heap of rubbish lasted. Rain water leaks, poor starting, rusting bodywork... bad, bad, bad.

This Fiat 128 was bought new - something I tend not to do any more - and, thinking back, it was my 'poor man's Alfa Sud'.

For the first six months, engineers tried to find the cause of the more-than-intermittent missing acceleration. Bravely, I planned a three-week holiday driving up the Rhine valley to the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps. The week before the holiday I took the car in for its service. I was assured all was now well.

We set off in the early hours to travel down to Felixstowe - over the Pennines then down the A1. A policeman flagged us down with his torch in the middle of the A6 in Whaley Bridge. Where were we going to at this hour in the morning? "The ferry at Felixtowe." He was impressed by my adventurousness and wished us well for our holiday.

Driving down the A1, the acceleration once again began to falter. I lost my rag and just floored it. I didn't care. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Whoosh! Suddenly the car leaped forward and we flew along. It was if a giant had given the car a kick up the backside. Problem solved. And it never returned.

We had a wonderful holiday. My mistake was not selling the car as soon as we got back.

It had to be parked facing downhill for morning starts. Gravity and a rolling start were vital ingredients. Eventually the seals around the back window went and let rainwater in, soaking the back seat which I regularly had to take out to dry in front of the fire. Sometimes the car smelled as though it had a dead rat hidden in it.

Two years from new, rust was eating through the doors. The lowest point was when I parked the car in central Manchester and returned to find someone had knocked the door-mounted mirror off, leaving a rusty gaping wound in the door. How did Fiat stay in business? Their cars were only suitable for clogging up the streets of Rome.

Note: The yellow VW beetle seen parked at the top of the hill in the photo belonged to neighbour Ted King. Ted was a character: a great racing pigeon man and a fine veg grower.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Plume-de-ma-tante moth

Plume-de-ma-tante moth, originally uploaded by mike(toons).

Hysteria non-scriptus Usually in flight during August, early doors to early dawn. These moths can be a nuisance in the home, leaving inky writing over walls and ceilings. Particularly messy when squished.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Moths lured off-track

Dun-bar moth
Dun-bar moth, originally uploaded by mike(toons).

Moths must hate all the lights we burn. Thinking that it must be the moon or a particularly bright star, many moths spiral towards bright lights and completely lose their bearings. If it's the proverbial candle flame they lose their lives.

For several million years moths perfected their navigation system and then clever-clogs humans come along, lighting fires, inventing incandescent bulbs and bedecking the planet with all manner of unnecessary, dazzling and unnatural artificial daylight.

I've just added to their woes. The light on the garage wall which illuminates the back gate and garden path had been unused since the 60 watt bulb had failed several months ago. I'd got fed up of feeding the damn thing with fragile bulbs which only lasted three or four months.

A visit to the DIY megawarehouse in Chippenham provided me with a new high-tech replacement. A light-sensor-activated low-energy bulkhead lamp using only 16 watts of power.

Poor moths. Every morning there are at least four lost souls dotted around the new lamp wondering why they are where they are and trying to blend their brilliant camouflages, acquired by natural selection in a more natural world, against my red brick garage wall.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Rye rubber brick

Rye rubber brick, originally uploaded by mike(toons).

Danger: Steep learning curve ahead. Behold the result of my very first attempt at baking bread. Actually, it's only my third attempt at baking anything.

A few weeks ago, under the watchful eye of my better half, I baked two delicious Irish Tea Loaves from a recipe in a Delia Smith cookbook. Which made me feel very proud. Prior to that I have to go back to my teen years when a swiss roll I baked had an unintentional but distinctly cubist look to it.

I wanted to have a go at baking bread but I especially wanted to try a rye sourdough. I have a digestion intolerance for white bread, especially the soft, damp, fluffy stuff that supermarkets sell.

For some time we've been buying various rye breads by The Village Bakery. It's great bread but a) naturally it's more expensive than normal supermarket bread and b) there are a couple of hundred 'food miles' involved getting the loaves from Melmerby in Cumbria to my table in Wiltshire. (On the plus side we never waste a crumb of it, Gordon Brown please note.)

Learning how to bake bread from a book is hard work. You're in a foreign land and it's difficult to tell how badly you're doing. Following the guidance in the book Bread Matters by The Village Bakery's founder Andrew Whitley, I lovingly prepared the sourdough starter over four days.

But when it came to the proofing stage, well, not much was going on. I could tell it wasn't right before it went into the oven but I wanted to see what would happen anyway.

Result: one rye rubber brick. Completely inedible.

I searched the internet for more guidance and it is probable that my 'starting from scratch' starter didn't have enough active beasties to work properly. It hadn't 'fired'. I had a vision of a Fiat 128 I once owned back in the 1970s. That was a bastard to cold start too, so at home I always parked it facing downhill.

Undaunted, I've saved a little of the original starter and I'm now in the process of adding to that in the hope of better results second time.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Well I woke up this mornin'

I had those no sleep blues. For some reason I woke up at 4 o' clock this morning and peeped out between the curtains to see a misty morning which looked like it might turn into a good sunrise.

Got up, collected the camera kit together and headed for the Vale of Pewsey hoping for some good landscape photos.

Not to be. The mist slowly thickened to a grey fog and the sunrise was completely hidden. But I did see a few things worth getting out of bed for... well worth getting out of bed for.

Brown hare
Brown Hare

Ambling pheasant
Male pheasant

Brown hares playing 1
Brown hares playing, watched by the pheasant

Friday, 16 May 2008

A question of identity

Possibly Cynoglossum cheirifolium
Our recent visit to Andalucia in April introduced us to lots of plants and animals we had never seen before. Identifying them from the photos we took is proving hard work. I think I've tracked more one down this evening after extensive Google and Wikipedia searches - Cynoglossum cheirifolium [photo above] - but, not being a botanist, I still harbour doubts. Anyway, to this botanical beginner it's a very pretty plant* with furry silver leaves and beautiful deep red flowers.

And it's not just wildflowers... have you tried identifying moths? Very difficult. But I know a man who can.

* Note added on May 27th: 'a very pretty plant' is a gross understatement. What a wonderful and sexy combination of colour and texture! I love this plant and its photo is my aide memoire to a very special place.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Kopi Luwak

Things I didn't know before today: I received a newsletter from Algerian Coffee Stores this morning. One of the items was about Kopi Luwak coffee.

"Most of you must have heard of Kopi Luwak, Kopi being the Indonesian word for coffee and Luwak the indigenous animal who feasts on ripe coffee cherries.

These animals eat, digest and eventually excrete the cherries. Locals gather the beans, which come through the digestion process fairly intact still wrapped in layers of the coffee cherry mucilage.

Apparently the enzymes in the stomach of the animal add something unique to the coffee's flavour through fermentation. Some people even say it's an aphrodisiac and it is now the world's priciest speciality coffee! We will have some in by the end of May, packed in a 250g bag, multipurpose ground @ £15.99"

Can you imagine the 'foodies' dinner party where this coffee is served up?

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Where have I been all these years?

I can't believe that I've only recently discovered Moondog. He is the springhead for the whole minimalist music movement - Glass, Reich, (who appear on this CBS album) Adams, Tiersen - which I have been devouring for the last ten years. How come I missed Moondog? Better late than never.

PS. Thanks to Dave B for lending the Moondog LP.

Monday, 31 March 2008


Ooops. I've just witnessed something I find hard to believe actually happened. My neighbour has driven, nay - accelerated, his car through his garage door. Completely wrecked his garage door, minor damage to car, no damage to driver and passenger apart being from a little shocked and shaken up. Totally weird.


After tinkering with the blog HTML, it is now 70 pixels wider than before. No big deal, but I can now make the left hand column 200 pixels wide.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Easter weekend

Maundy Thursday: M's birthday but sadly not a particularly special day with both of us working hard.

Good Friday: Traditional annual meet with friends at the Barge Inn at Honeystreet, supposedly to watch the participants in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race but most, if not all of them, paddled past this point hours ago. Excellent Butcombe Bitter. Joined by No. 1 son and partner down from London. Followed by excellent joint-effort meal at friends' house.

Easter Saturday: Fretted over state-of-play in Lancashire derby between PNE and Burnley, the Whites prevailing. After lunch No. 1 son and partner headed back to London via garden centres and Sainsbury's. The rest of the day spent chained to Mac to finish off the print-ready artwork for Wiltshire Wildlife Magazine and the What's On events guide, finally FTP-ing them to the printer. Deadlines, deadlines...

Easter Robin
Easter Sunday: Watched unseasonal snowfall (photographed the Easter Robin) before packing the Silver Baby (Toyota Yaris) for The North. After parking in Lancaster, I used taxis to get around* the city because of painful torn muscles in my leg. *L I M P, pronounced limp.

Oulton Park: VW racing
Easter Monday: Grand Day Out for nephews and sister-in-law to Oulton Park for a day's motor sport. I know nothing about motor racing apart from being able to name one or two famous English Grand Prix drivers (when did it change its name to F1?). Seven hours later I had a couple of hundred shots, most of them blurred or half a second too late, but was still not much wiser about motor sport.

Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve: Black-headed gull
Back-to-work-again-for-most-people-Tuesday: Took a short detour, across the lovely bridge over the River Lune at Crook o' Lune, up over the hilltops to Over Kellet and down to Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve at Silverdale. Complete bliss sitting in the hides watching crazy black-headed gulls, introspective teal and graceful great crested grebes. A pair of grebes were busy building a nest near the Public Hide on the Causeway, accompanied by the occasional pas de deux of head bobbing and weed presentation. Had to force myself away to point the Silver Baby back down the M6 again.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Mersey ferry on a foggy day

Ferry 'cross the Mersey | Foggy day 1969
Even more from the archives: A new scan from an old negative. A labour of love which took a lot of time 'spotting out' in Photoshop to lose the scratches, dust and other grot accumulated over almost 40 years. Anyway, thank goodness for the cloning and healing tools. Much easier than mixing up tints of lamp black and dabbing it on with a brush with two hairs.

The shot was taken in early 1969, the last year of my graphic design course at Liverpool College of Art, but I haven't any record of the exact date. It looks like early afternoon, judging by the low number of people on board: well before the evening rush. I'd been photographing on the Wirral that day: by train from Liverpool to West Kirby and back to Birkenhead. Just for the hell of it, instead of staying on the train I decided to take the ferry back to Liverpool and was rewarded with the best shot of the day.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Liverpool Pierhead in the 60s

Liverpool Pierhead: No. 2 Bridge, 1967
More from the archives: I took this photo from the top floor of the old bus terminus at Liverpool Pierhead in spring 1967. It's beginning to dawn on me that I'm old.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Playing with ArtRage 2

ArtRage doodle
Hornet Entity: created with ArtRage 2. I've had this application on my Mac for a while but haven't properly explored what it can do. There are four layers to this doodly painting: 1) sketch 2) colour 1 set to multiply 3) colour 2 set to multiply 4) highlights.

Playtime after a long day spent diligently working to pay the mortgage.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Small earthquake, nobody killed

Where were you when...
The earthquake centred in Market Rasen in the early hours of this morning has become one of those events that gets people chattering and comparing. Most descriptions start with an initial perception that it was the young couple upstairs/next door engaging in a particularly athletic bout of bonking before the realisation that the earth was actually moving for everybody. In my case I presumed the memsahib had fallen heavily against the furniture but the vigourous shaking of the walls and the alarm calls of the ducks on the canal indicated a wider event. I can't say I ever remember participating in an earthquake before.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Messerschmitt car

Messerschmitt in the snow: Anfield 1960s
Rummaging Through Old Photos Department: I can't remember which year this photo was taken - it could be 1967 or 1968. It's while I was living in Anfield, anyway. And it's obviously winter. A fall of snow late at night tempted me out onto the streets with my camera and in St Domingo Grove I found this little gem. It's still a favourite image of mine.

Friday, 22 February 2008

60s Liverpool | Adrian Henri

Adrian Henri: Liverpool 1967

Last night I spent a couple of nostalgic hours scanning in old transparencies taken in the 60s in Liverpool. That's where (and when) I spent my student days at the College of Art, studying Pre-Dip. (now called Foundation) and Diploma in Art & Design [Graphic Design].

My group tutor in my first year was the late Adrian Henri, artist and Liverpool poet *. Adjusting to life at art college with Adrian Henri was a major shock to the system after A level art in the sixth form of a Grammar School but it was fabulous to have been there at that time.

The photo of Adrian Henri (above) was taken a couple years later in April 1967 during a student collaborative film/audio/visual project. I wish I'd taken lots more. Seen from this distance it's as precious as gold.

'Death in the Suburbs', Adrian Henri (audio)

* Poet Roger McGough was my 'Liberal Studies' tutor in that first year at the college: his classes sometimes involved improvised plays based on newspaper headlines. It was 'Whose Line is it Anyway?' 40 years ago.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Trashy Lingerie

Trashy lingerie

London: 15th February. This doorway and its funny neon sign turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the day. The shop is in Old Compton Street, almost opposite the Algerian Coffee Stores*, where I'd just bought Brazilian Bourbon and Blue Sumatra coffee beans.

It's the sort of shot that I wouldn't have taken a few months ago but I'm feeling more playful and more confident in my visual 'jottings' now. I'm sharpening up the way I look at everything. [Despite this photo having camera-shake blur!]

Earlier in the day I'd fought through the half-term hoards of kids with their attendant mums, dads and pushchairs at the Natural History Museum. They were there for the dinosaurs. I was there for the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition.

A magnificent collection of beautiful and thought-provoking images, some of them by very young kids too! It must be nice for a 10 year old to be able to say "I got a new DSLR for Christmas so I borrowed my uncle's 400mm lens and managed to capture this image of a rare..."

The exhibition is on until 27 April 2008. Recommended.

* Algerian Coffee Stores: The very best place IMHO to buy fresh coffee beans. Beats any other place I've ever tried.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Bag o' sh*t

Hand on heart, I've never been a 'doggy' person.

I tolerate dogs. I tolerate then when they bark and growl at me. I tolerate them when they stinky slobber on my hand. I even tolerate them when they leap up and try and knock me over. Actually, I just remembered back to a little Yorkie I used to know called Chewy. Chewy was OK.

But poo is the problem. Poo on your shoe. Poo in areas where children play. Poo in areas like nature reserves where ecologists play - grovelling on hands and knees, looking for marsh fritillary larvae or early signs of squinancywort.

Good dog owners pick up the poo [scoop the poop] in a plastic bag and dispose of it in the appropriate manner. A hearty round of applause for all those good folk.

Bad dog owners shiftily avert their gaze to admire a passing cement truck and continue their sauntering walk as Effin' Fido dumps a pile in the middle of the pavement/footpath/canal towpath.

But there's an in-between breed [crossbreed?] of dog owners whose behaviour is, quite frankly, incomprehensible. After dutifully bagging up their pet's excrement they throw the bag down into the grass, under some bushes, or even tie the bag onto a branch of a bush.

What do they think will happen to the bagged-up shite? Do they walk past the bag each day and admire it? The polythene is very effective at preserving its contents and preventing it from breaking down naturally. No chance of dung-loving insects processing it in there.

I am totally flummoxed by these people. I wait in hope of enlightenment from someone who has insight into their mindset.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

1995 revisited

1995 revisited: this was the image on the homepage of miketoons in its first incarnation. Doodly doodles* on a spiral bound secretarial notepad, montaged in Photoshop. I still like the lettering but I'm not sure now about the fake coffee cup stain. *My best doodles are done while talking on the phone.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

managaging volunteers

I was sent the GoldStar logo for a design job I'm currently working on. As often happens, the file sent to me was low-res inside a Word document. [sigh]. I burst out laughing when I noticed the spelling. I checked the GoldStar website and yes, the same artwork with the same spelling was top left of every page.* Well done HM Government Cabinet Office.
*I'll keep a check on how long it takes them to notice. I've saved a screengrab.

Update - 23 September 2008 Thanks to Elliot Elam for discovering that things have been rectified: "You'll be slightly disappointed, as I am, to find they've noticed their mistake."

Beware of Birdsong

Beware of Birdsong, originally uploaded by miketoons pix.

Drawn with Pentel Japanese brushpen on a piece of A4 photocopier paper, torn in half to A5.
The lack of any value to this piece of white paper helped me to make marks.
Coloured in Photoshop.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Creative Schizoid

Wood pigeon in the rain, originally uploaded by miketoons pix.

Since 2002, illustration has slept soundly in the back seat of my beat-up creative jalopy. A corner was turned when I was offered a job as a graphic designer for the local Wildlife Trust. This souped-up my Quark and Photoshop skills very nicely but gradually the confidence in my drawing skills declined.

Six years later I still haven't got my confidence back to where it was before the turn of the millennium. I spend my days wiggling a mouse around a mouse mat, staring at a monitor, shunting type and images around a digital pasteboard. This needs remedial action and I've promised myself to WD-40 my sketching hand and grind off that rust.

However, since last November (2007), after buying a second-hand DSLR camera, I've found a creative outlet in wildlife and landscape photography. It reinforces my interest in those subjects - which had been nurtured through my work for the Wildlife Trust - and gives me the opportunity to do things solely for myself.

After many years of working to a brief, to a deadline, keeping clients happy... it is hard to work creatively for no-one but me. The buzz I'm getting now from my photography is training me to think differently and I want to be able to take this across to my drawing and painting.

I'm posting the best of the photos on Flickr but will post some on this blog if I feel the need to write about the capturing of them.

For now, here's a very drippy wood pigeon. It was lifting its wing in the heavy rain as it sat forlornly on the front fence. It may have been thinking that a shower was just as good as taking a bath, but I like to think it was just pee'd off with the rain and was using the wing in lieu of a folded copy of The Guardian.

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